Sisson's Peony Garden

Sisson's Peony Garden

Part of Ep. 2005 Hidden Gems

There’s another reason to drive slowly through the Village of Rosendale and it has nothing to do with the speed limit.  Despite being famous (and proud of it) as a community that takes its speed limit seriously, Rosendale was originally famous as the peony capital of Wisconsin.  Visit the original garden that put it on the map.

Premiere date: Jun 24, 2012

TRANSCRIPT+
Wisc Gardener Transcript: 

Shelley Ryan:

If you've ever traveled between Madison and Green Bay, or vice versa chances are you've taken the shortcut on Highway 26 through Rosendale. Hopefully, slowly! Well, now there's a reason to maybe stop in Rosendale besides for police reasons. I'm with Emajean Westphal. Emajean, you are the president of the Rosendale Historical Society in Rosendale.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Yes.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Rosendale has a reputation. Show me what you've got holding there.

 

Emajean Westphal:

We have a reputation for being a speed trap. But we really aren't, because if you don't speed you don't get a ticket.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So maybe instead of going slowly through Rosendale stop and smell the peonies.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Yes, exactly.

 

Shelley Ryan:

You guys are on the National Register of Historic Places because of this garden.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Yes, we are.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Tell me about it.

 

Emajean Westphal:

This garden was started in 1920 as Sisson's Peony Gardens. It was started by Wilbur Sisson in 1920. It was started as a small garden here, and right over there. Then, it gradually grew and in 1950, he sold it to-- He passed away and Jess Phillips who had been working for him for 21 years, bought the garden and proceeded to enlarge it to five acres.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Wow.

 

Emajean Westphal:

So then in 1968, Governor Warren Knowles declared Rosendale's peony gardens Sisson's Peony Gardens in Rosendale as the State Peony Capital.

 

Shelley Ryan:

This is the Peony Capital of Wisconsin. And who knew?

 

Emajean Westphal:

I knew!

 

Shelley Ryan:

Like I said, we all think of something else when we're driving very carefully through here.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Exactly.

 

Shelley Ryan:

It's right on the main drag, so some of the features that we see are the windmill and that stone archway.

 

Emajean Westphal:

One thing would be the windmill. That was built by Jess Phillips after he graduated from college. Sisson got him to build the windmill out of stones that were from the Methodist Church, which had been moved. Then there were stones left, so he built the archway after the windmill.

 

Shelley Ryan:

It was quite the site back then, but then something bad happened.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Oh, yes. Eventually, it got into disrepair. Jess Phillips sold it in 1980. By 1984, there was very little left. They sold the area back there and apartments were built on it. So therefore, all that remained was a half acre up here.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Which is beautiful.

 

Emajean Westphal:

And this became a dog yard.

 

Shelley Ryan:

What happened to the peonies?

 

Emajean Westphal:

Well, the peonies are really hard to kill, but they would come up in the grass. The dogs would run over them and they'd get mowed over. They'd come up again and they'd get mowed over. So for 21 years, they just basically got mowed over.

 

Shelley Ryan:

21 years they were mowed over?

 

Emajean Westphal:

Yes, and they still kept up. In 2005, the Historical Society had the opportunity to get this half acre of garden. We got it and started looking for what was coming up. The first year, this whole area was fenced in with a woven wire fence, which had wild grapes and cucumbers growing on it. The trees that were here were box elder trees. So in the spring of 2005 we decided to take it all down. We had a whole crew of volunteers that worked on this.

Shelley Ryan:

So you guys had to start over again.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Yes, we had to start over.

 

Shelley Ryan:

One of the questions with all this being in disrepair-- Obviously, this was a community effort.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Yes, it was.

 

Shelley Ryan:

With the peonies being mowed over, how did you know which peonies are what, because I see a lot of these have labels.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Well, we know very little of what there was. Some of them were famous ones like Jess Phillips had hybridized the peony named after his daughter, which was Tinka Phillips. We knew what that one looked like, so that one we could name.

 

Shelley Ryan:

So you're slowly still trying to identify these from 20, 40, 50 years ago?

 

Emajean Westphal:

Yes, and I need to say that this garden was laid out in 2005 by two people. It was Betty and Dick Dahlke. They did an absolutely magnificent job of laying it out like it is. In 2007, they added the raised beds. That was all their idea. They did a magnificent job of laying it out and deciding what to put where. Since then, we've bought new peonies so we have names, so we know what they are.

 

Shelley Ryan:

You keep going. It's truly a labor of love. It's one of the most unique community gardens open to the public. The best time to see it is in June.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Oh, exactly, in June.

 

Shelley Ryan:

Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Emajean.

 

Emajean Westphal:

Thank you.

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